Dust-covered children collected useful-looking pieces of rubbish or food discarded by soldiers. They tossed them into grubby sacks as they walked along the roadside, towards the frontline of Iraq’s offensive against so-called Islamic State. Others held up a two-fingered victory salute or wave, hoping for donations of food or even cigarettes, while their fathers herded sheep nearby.
But few of the military vehicles from the Popular Mobilisation Forces – a loose coalition of predominantly Shia fighters – even slowed down as they raced on towards the battle, towards Tal Afar, a strategic town on the road to Mosul.
One PMF soldier told IRIN the children couldn’t be trusted. He said they’d been trained by IS as young militants or used as informants. “They’re not naive, these children,” he said. “They know exactly what they’re doing now, [just] as they knew exactly what they were doing with IS then.” The Shia fighter fiercely denied his suspicions were linked to the children’s faith – the majority of Mosul’s citizens are Sunni.
PMF flags, many showing venerated figures in Shia history, fly everywhere across the newly liberated desert terrain: from the vehicles and buildings to the sandbanks themselves. Ostensibly, they’re triumphant markers of the key territorial gains made against IS, but the flags also hint at something less visible: the simmering sectarian tensions that underpin this conflict. Feelings of mutual suspicion run high.
A few kilometres from the frontline, a sad convoy of decrepit farm vehicles and ancient cars – many on tow due to lack of fuel – gathered in a sandy valley. The 100 or so families inside had fled that morning as clashes reached their village of Tel Serwal.
“The most important thing for us before we enter any area is to ensure that all families have escaped to a safe place,” said Commander Abu Thurrat, who leads a unit in the PMF’s powerful Badr Organisation, the group leading the fight around Tal Afar. “Our focus is always to liberate humans first.”
The PMF (al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic) have played a vital role in Iraq’s two-year fight against IS. This past weekend, parliament voted to make them an official government force. This may bring them under a greater degree of central control, although exactly how this will work isn’t yet clear.
The forces and the new law are both controversial. Many Sunni lawmakers boycotted the vote; some concerned about Iranian influence, others about alleged abuses against civilians. For now, the PMF have agreed not to enter Mosul proper, but they’re very much active on the outskirts.
On the ground near Tel Serwal, families in the convoy were full of gratitude for the PMF’s role in their liberation. "Ever since IS took over... we considered ourselves like dead people. And today, after being freed by [the PMF], we are finally alive again," said Yassar Awad Ismael, 35. "It was terrible under IS. We had no services, no electricity or telephone networks, no work, and no petrol for our trucks."
Ismael described how villagers had struggled to adhere to strict doctrines and lived in daily fear for their lives after IS militants publicly executed one local man for no apparent reason. Other punishments were also meted out in the middle of the street, in full view. "If you were caught smoking or if your beard was too short, you got 20 lashes,” he said. “And if your trousers were too long, or if your wife was seen without a full-face veil, it was 15 lashes.”
As PMF forces made swift advances towards Tal Afar in the past month, IS has forced Tel Serwal residents to abandon their homes and pitch tents just outside the village, turning them into human shields – a civilian buffer zone to slow down the offensive.
"[IS] kicked down our doors, entered our homes and shot around us with machine guns, forcing us to leave and live in tents outside the village," explained Chamali Faisal Hussain, 45. "We had to leave most of our things, and they took everything from us, even our food.”
Fearful families had spent the last fortnight holed up in the desert encampment until fighting started in earnest around Tel Serwal. "When the rockets and mortar fire started close to the village, IS were distracted and we could escape," Ismail said.
Gratitude and suspicion
Like many others in the convoy, Hussain expressed heartfelt thanks to the PMF for her liberation from IS. Unlike widely circulated images showing women tearing off their veils in other parts of Iraq, she and other female family members still wore their niqabs.
Commander Thurrat was quick to highlight useful cooperation between the PMF forces and some of the villagers, who had provided intelligence information about IS numbers, positions, and activities.
But after fighters distributed food and cigarettes amongst the convoy of fleeing villagers, the atmosphere shifted from one of gentle euphoria to concern and mutual suspicion.
Men and boys were separated from their families as Iraqi police investigation units arrived to start screening them for suspected collaboration or affiliation with IS.
Such screenings are conducted near frontlines at sites across the country, as well as at some displacement camps. But there is little transparency in the process and there have been widespread allegations of abuse and score-settling.
Journalists were ordered to leave the area once the investigation units arrived but IRIN heard the men of Tel Serwal being instructed to surrender any weapons they carried, with assurances that there would be no retribution.
While civilians are sometimes suspicious of the PMF, and the fleeing residents of Tel Serwal admitted that they had no idea where they were going to be taken, the forces have valid reasons to worry about some of those who lived under IS. In Iraq, as in IS strongholds elsewhere, there have been multiple reported cases of former militants shaving their beards, cutting their hair, and hiding amongst ordinary fleeing civilians to avoid detection.
"No army has really entered this area for years, and it has long been favoured by al-Qaeda, IS, and other terrorist groups," said Commander Thurrat, stressing the importance of such investigations.
While an estimated 3.1 million Iraqis have been displaced, a fair number are now heading back home, especially in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province. In the north too, nearer Mosul, a handful of residents are starting to return to liberated villages. They are finding that the landscape, as well as the flags, has changed.
Humble farmyards are now overlooked from rooftops by soldiers armed with guns and others with binoculars trained on the horizon.
In one tiny mud-hut village, three old men stood for hours in the dusty central track, holding small, dirty containers and lengths of hosepipe, hoping one of the military vehicles trundling towards the frontline would let them syphon out a little petrol to fuel their antiquated machines.
On the outskirts of another village, the corpses of two IS fighters lay spread-eagled on the ground. Bloated after several days’ decay, their legs were still tied together by a length of rope, indicating that they had been dragged through the desert. Their presence contradicted commanders’ claims to IRIN that all dead IS militants were swiftly buried, and the fact that the bodies had been abandoned so near to a village suggested it might have been done on purpose, as a warning to other militants and the locals who lived under their control.
(TOP PHOTO: A child hopes to flag down passing military vehicles in northern Iraq. Tom Westcott/IRIN)